(Country) Memories

By Stan Hitchcock - February 10, 2005
           To Bill Morrison. Yeah Bill, good memories and good times with the music.  We are both blessed by being able to have lived and experienced the music and the people that were the pioneers and heroes.  I am reminded of old friends, now gone as I read that Merle Kilgore has died this weekend. Let me share a story with you of those years and heroes:
           It seems that when we lose one of our stars that it has a special significance to all of us who have been touched by their music in a way that is intensely personal.  Maybe that was the song you dated to in high school, or got married to, or had some other personal attachment that brought this person into a part of your life. Yes, these are our heroes and it is hard to give them up.
           Sometimes the loss just makes no sense.....when Keith Whitley died, after drinking straight alcohol until his heart stopped, I was just so angry because I loved him and I couldn't reconcile him doing something like that, or when Mel Street got up from the breakfast table, with all his family sitting there, climbed the stairs to the second story bedroom put the pistol to his head and shot himself to death.  Wasted years that could have been so good, with family and friends that loved them ... I still grieve for the senseless loss.
           It was particularly pitiful when Dottie West died, after her car broke down on the way to the Opry and she hitched a ride from a elderly neighbor that came by and he wrecked taking the Opry exit off Briley Parkway.
           Conway, who knew something was not quite right within himself, but kept putting off going to the doctor until the day he left Branson, Missouri after a concert and about 100 miles up the road the aneurysm in the main artery in his stomach ruptured and he bled to death.
           Bob Luman, who I took on a fishing trip just weeks before he died, kept complaining of being cold in the 80 degree weather.  Cold, cause he was bleeding inside and his body was slowly shutting down.  Bob Luman was one of the best at this job of entertaining that I have ever met, and I just loved him like a brother and I thought he would live to be 120 at least.
           Eddie Rabbitt, who was one of the nicest men I ever met, kind, calm, considerate, and full of talent ... finally lost the fight to lung cancer, but he fought it hard.  The last time we were together he came up to Branson, Missouri with me and we shot a "Heart to Heart" show together ... just the two of us with two flat top guitars and some funny stories to tell.  He was my friend, and I miss him ...
           Just since I have been writing this journal of country music early years so many have been lost and I guess it is just on my mind strong today as I sit here at my keyboard and the rain falls outside my window and runs in little miniature rivers down to the creek in the bottom and the ghosts of my old friends stroll through my memory like old soldiers in a Veterans Day parade, still walking proud and straight just as I remember them.
           A couple of weeks ago one of my musician friends called me and told me that one of my old compadres had died that morning, namely Curly Chalker, the best damn steel guitar player that ever slid a bar across strings, and would I come and sing at the funeral.  Many years ago, around 1970, I recorded a song called "The Shadow Of Your Smile" which is an old pop standard and one of the prettiest melodies I have ever heard.  The reason I recorded it was so I could feature Curly playing the steel guitar turnaround, no small feat for a country steel guitar player ... but Curly wasn't just any steel player....he was Curly Chalker, the best.  I met Curly in the late sixties when he moved to Nashville from Las Vegas where he had a legendary show band where other musicians would just come to watch in amazement as they played everything from Western Swing to far-out Jazz and all the in-between. Curly came to Nashville to get into session work but the producers in power were so intimidated by his talent, and his no-bullshit attitude, that they froze him out of most of the big sessions.  My bass player, Buck Evans, would go down to Printer's Alley and play with Curly, as part of the Curly Chalker Trio when we weren't on the road.  Curly had put together the Trio which consisted of Curly, Buck and Jimmy Stuart on drums.  I would come by the club and listen and Curly got to asking me to get up and sit in on vocals. ... then one night he wondered if I knew the song "The Shadow Of Your Smile" and when I said no he asked me to learn the song so we could do it on stage.  Well, I learned the song and the first night we tried it on stage, and he went into the jazz-swing turnaround and just played his everlovin' butt off, I was hooked.  A couple of years later when I was putting the material together for a new album, I decided to bring in Curly and feature him on the "Shadow".  Tommy Allsup was my producer, a man who understood music and musicians and who loved Curly's playing also.  Well, we had cut a couple of good songs and I felt about in the mood, so I sent most of the extra musicians out of the studio for a break and kept Jimmy Capps on gut-string guitar, Bob Moore on the acoustic bass, Buddy Harmon using brushes on the snare and a mixed quartet of background voices and brought Curly in.  We dimmed the lights real low and Curly touched those strings with his magic hands and we started the song.  I sang a verse and a chorus and then very quietly said,"Ladies and Gentlemen, may I present my very good friend, Mr. Curly Chalker."  What followed was a special moment in our country music......Curly played a classic turnaround that every steel guitar player who has ever heard it still just shake their heads in wonder.  The record came out in an album and the label pulled the song for the backside of a single ... but the song was there and in the areas where it got play it was a smash ... because of the steel.  Well, the problem with all of it was ... none of the other musicians could play it ... so I never got to perform it on the road, except once ...
           I was booked for a concert in St. Louis, Missouri in 1970 when "The Shadow" reached number one on WIL Radio....the top country station in that whole region.  Well, I was sweating it 'cause I knew folks would be wanting to hear the song ... and we couldn't play it without Curly. The auditorium was packed and we had set up on the front part of the stage, in front of the curtain ... because that is how Buck said the promoter wanted it.  I was sorta skeptical about this set-up ... shoot, who every heard of setting up in front of the curtain?  We were introduced and came out to a great welcome from the crowd, launched into our first song and the show was on.  We did about three songs without stop and then we cooled down and I started talking to the crowd, and they started hollering for the "Shadow".  I was just into the explanation about how it was impossible to do our number one record ... when from behind the curtain came the sweetest sound ... the steel guitar intro to my song.  The curtain parted and there Curly sat, behind that old Sho-Bud guitar, grinning from ear to ear.  We did "Shadow" three times before the crowd would let us be ... it was a great moment.  Buck had told Curly about our problem and he had flown in to do the show with us ... just 'cause he wanted to.  It is my fond memory of Curly, and one I will always cherish.
           At the funeral I stood off to a room at the side, facing the casket, and sang the "Shadow" to Curly for the last time.  I looked out across the crowd of pickers and we were all taken back to those special times when the music was all that mattered, we were all young and the fire was still in our bellies ... and Curly Chalker was the best damn steel guitar player that ever slid a bar ... across a string.
Stan Hitchcock

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